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Dance, Girl, Dance

It is one of Hollywood’s most revered myths—the talented yet undiscovered starlet from some flyover backwater, desperate to make it big in the city. Forget The Voice, this stuff goes all the way back to the dawn of mass media. You could be forgiven for wondering which was more numerous: the wanna-be stars or the movies made about them.

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One of the earliest strains of the form came in the 1926 comedy Ella Cinders. Colleen Moore wins a contest that sends her off to Hollywood for a big break, only to discover to her heartbreak that the competition was a sham and she is now lost and alone in LA. Moore finds laughs in the material, but in 1926 there was a brewing scandal in the industry about the hapless young girls who washed into town because of phony prizes only to be forced into prostitution to pay the bills.

This then is the ugly underbelly of the great Hollywood myth: for every star that is discovered there are countless others who are not. The line between using one’s beauty and body to entertain strangers for money and exploiting one’s beauty and body to sexually gratify strangers for money is thin enough to be easily blurred.

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In MGM’s 1933 Dancing Lady, a ravishingly young Joan Crawford plays a dancer whose struggle to find meaningful and artistically valid employment obliges her to perform half-nude in burlesque houses along the way (an idea repeated in Peter Jackson’s remake of King Kong).

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The 1940 RKO romantic comedy Dance, Girl, Dance wades in the same pool, but with its own distinctive voice. Roommates Judy and Bubbles are aspiring dancers who ply their trade anywhere their intrepid manager (Maria Ouspenskaya) can finagle them a gig. Judy (top-billed Maureen O’Hara) is a serious artist with some genuine god-given ability and a schoolmarm’s personality that works against her own interests. By stark contrast, her friend and rival Bubbles (played by the brilliant Lucille Ball more than ten years before making TV history) has little more than moxie, but when it comes to shaking her booty she does it with a wild abandon that Judy could never muster. Bubbles gets the breaks, and quickly makes a name for herself—as a top stripper!

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Say what you will about the respectability of Bubbles’ career—erm, sorry, she’s now called Tiger Lily White—at least she lives well and on her own terms, while Judy faces despair and ruin. Judy takes a humiliating job as Tiger Lily’s stooge, interrupting the striptease routine with some highbrow ballet intended to rile the audience into heckling her offstage.

In taking the job as Tiger Lily’s stooge, Judy has to retreat emotionally into herself. Whatever artistic value her dancing has is (as far as she knows) recognized only by her, and earns her nothing but ridicule and hostility from her audience. Yet it also brings her money, stability, even some fame—and creates opportunities that her previous career path could not. For all the film does to plod through the shopworn story beats of the Star is Born paradigm, this question of Judy’s career choices and what they mean is the true meat of the movie.

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All this, and a Lucy striptease too—the girl has moves! Tiger Lily is a savvy businesswoman in a film full of sharp women, turning her liabilities into strengths as she shores up an entertainment empire, much as the real-life Lucy would do over the next four decades.

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Both Tiger Lily and Judy are insecure, frightened girls, who conceal their self-doubt inside an increasingly brittle shell of cynicism. Over the course of the film, both women become alarmingly harsh, until all their pent-up aggression is unleashed in a violent catfight, and a chilling screed by Judy as she attacks her own fans. The film winds itself up in a somewhat bland courtroom denouement, but after such riveting drama before hand, a softball ending is almost welcome.

TCM is screening Dance, Girl, Dance on Tuesday the 6th, and clips of it and Dancing Lady are waiting for you on the spiffy new WatchTCM smartphone app.

 

1 Response Dance, Girl, Dance
Posted By swac44 : October 26, 2015 1:54 pm

Finally got to see this, partly spurred on by the recent passing of Ms. O’Hara, and was not disappointed. Great performances by Ball and O’Hara, and some lively, sensitive direction by Dorothy Arzner behind the camera. Drama and comedy are well balanced, and I agree that the courtroom finale is one of the rare moments that does seem completely formulaic, at least it has a few good laughs in it.

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